One of the best things the Soviet Union ever did for its citizens was allotting land for dachas or summer cottages. It has been a tradition from the 1950s for Russians and citizens of former Soviet countries to use the land around their dachas to farm potatoes, beetroot, cabbages and other vegetables, as well as grow fruits and berries. Many urban families harvest enough potatoes to last all winter. They would also pickle cabbages and cucumbers and make jams from berries. (Anton Chekhov loved having a spoonful of homemade berry jam with his black tea).
With the COVID-19 lockdown set to be extended in many parts of India, including several Kerala districts, it may not be a bad idea to use this as an opportunity to attempt some form of farming in both urban and semi-urban settings. Out of sheer interest and availability of time, many office-goers in Indian cities are using their windowsills to grow spring onions, tomatoes, long beans and okra. Those with some access to outdoor space are even trying their hand at growing spinach and fenugreek.
A walk through any small town in Kerala will reveal how even the most modest of homes are blessed with flowering trees. Residents of such homes can easily get into the act of growing their own food. It would be foolhardy to think that every urban or semi-urban household’s food requirements could be met with home agriculture, but getting a decent stock of vegetables, fruits and herbs that are free of fertilizers and pesticides should be motivation enough for individuals to invest some time and effort in this task.
One of the great success stories in urban agriculture is Mexico City, a place with climatic conditions similar to peninsular India. The Mexican capital has been one of the pioneers in hydroponics and vertical growing. A city like Kochi, where multi-floor buildings are coming up at an alarming rate, could be used as a testing ground for hydroponics, the science of soil-less gardening. The process basically involves growing plants without using traditional soil, replacing it with a mineral-rich water solution. Studies have shown that plants grow better with their roots in water than in soil. Food grown in residential towers could be shared by residents. Before critics talk about the water scarcity that Kerala and the rest of India is facing, here is a fun fact about hydroponics: Water that is used in the process of hydroponic gardening remains in the system. It can be reused and so the need for fresh water supply is significantly reduced.
Since 2007, the municipal government of Mexico City has been providing grants to residents of buildings who are cultivating rooftop agricultural gardens. As a result the Mexican capital produces 20 per cent of its own food and the city is believed to have more than 20,000 square metres of green roof gardens.
Once the COVID-19 crisis is behind us, the Kerala government could also encourage urban and semi-urban farming by appointing consultants from the Kerala Agricultural University to reach out to wider communities. Those without technical know-how should be trained in the basics so that every single resident can become a part-time subsistence farmer. Cooperative movements could also ensure that people in various localities grow different fruits and vegetables and find a reasonable way of sharing their produce.
The idea of growing one’s own food is by no means new to Kerala. It’s hard to imagine a single traditional home without a jackfruit and coconut tree. This concept is literally a part of our culture, but many Keralites now look at farming and agriculture as activities for those without good education. If ordinary citizens do not think out of the box and look at ways of genuine cooperation, then at some point or the other a crisis or pandemic can lead to the undoing of us all. It’s time the unexploited conditions of this rich and abundant country are used for the benefit of all. While urban farming will not meet all the demand for food in cities, if Kerala can come anywhere close to the 20 per cent that Mexico City produces, this can be a huge way to mitigate the effects of any future crisis.
This writer is well aware of organic and urban farming initiatives in Kerala, but only a mass movement would make this endeavour a real success.